The Screenplay-novel Manifestos

Less is more vivid

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Michael Allen Interview: Part 2.

Q: You've also said that generally speaking novels would do well to be shorter. Why do you think this?

A: Can I refer you to my four-part essay on The Problem of Length, published in December 2004. Here are the links:

part one

part two

part three

part four

Commentary: The discussion Allen has on length covers both the marketing and aesthetic reasons for writing novels that are either long or short. (Although the discussion is about books generally, its real focus is on the novel; non-fiction, presumably, is not as prone to fashions in length as fiction is -- fiction, after all, is the skirt of the publishing industry.)

This discussion is a must-read. Allen begins with a history of the novel, beginning with the Victorian novel -- a form we automatically associate with great length. Allen shows that in fact the long Victorian novel was driven by market demand, and makes a strong case for believing this was in large measure because of the influence of one man: Charles Edward Mudie.

Mudie owned many libraries. These were privately-run enterprises. (A person subscribed to the library -- paid a fee, in other words -- and was entitled to borrow books from it rather than buy them outright; the analogy with ebook services is not hard to draw.) Because Mudie's libraries were plentiful, this gave him considerable power as a consumer. There were cases of his buying a novel's entire print run. As a result, he dominated the book market, and his taste had a strong influence on what publishers published. For example, as Allen describes, Mudie realized that he could make a greater profit from dividing novels into three sections. As a result, the "triple decker" novel -- the long Victorian novel as we commonly think of it -- became popular. And so, commercial demands had a noticeable effect on the form of an artistic medium.

Allen continues by illustrating how changing economic circumstances played a significant role in the length of the novel. During the Second World War, paper was scarce; novels became shorter. The length of the average novel fluctuated for a variety of reasons, not all of them economic, but as Allen shows, it is a mistake to think novel-length is merely the result of pure artistry.

Allen continues in following parts of his essay to argue that the novel should, ideally, be short(er). There are sound reasons for this, he says, the primary one being that a short novel places less demands on the reader and forces the writer to tell his/her story directly, instead of allowing the impulse for meandering and unnecessary description to take over. In other words, short novels not only read better, but tend to be better written.

Allen allows that there are exceptions to this rule, and he cites the example of Neal Stephenson. I can't personally speak on Stephenson's work, but agree that the preference for shorter novels must always be, at most, a very general rule, and each work of fiction should be judged on its own merits.

[Just as an aside, a while ago Eric Rosenfield posted on the merits of short literary magazine, One Story.]


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